3 ways to add play to your learning design

3 ways to add play to learning design
3 Ways to add play to learning – Photo by Leon on Unsplash

When you think of the idea of play in learning, which images or feelings does it bring up for you? Is it a vision of excitement and energy between your participants or an image of confusion and overwhelm when you hear the buzz word ‘gamification’?

As a learning professional, you are no doubt conscious of the desirability of keeping people engaged in your training.

The trainers and consultants I work with want that element of fun. They want people to describe their programs as creative and interactive. I get that.

But do you have visions of people ‘playing around’ and not really achieving anything at all? I get that too.

There are 3 distinct problems with the idea of introducing ‘play’ in your learning and development unless you apply it effectively.

Play can feel forced

If it doesn’t come naturally to you, the idea of introducing ‘play’ to your workshops and learning can seem a little daunting.

That’s ok. The clients I help all have different ideas of ‘play introduceability’ (Yep…I just made that word up!) 😁

Some trainers want to go all out and dream up something hugely creative and imaginative. Others just need to take a few steps towards offering their delegates something play-full and a little less mundane.

It’s all about finding the right levels of play in the right context so you and your clients are comfortable. You will know what feels right.

You can ask for feedback if you are unsure. Just remember that you don’t have to play for the sake of it! That take us nicely to problem #2.

Play has no purpose

If you intentionally add aspects of play to learning programs, the most important thing is that it has a clear, rational purpose.

Even if that purpose is to let off steam, relax the mind or connect with other training delegates, you need to be able to justify it.

What you don’t want to see is a room full of busy adults staring blankly at some exercise or unable to make any connection between what you want them to do and what their daily job pays them to do. Right!?

So when you know the purpose of play, it’s surprisingly easy to come up with something that fits in your trainings and enables your clients.

Facilitators can sometimes overlook that…which takes us to problem #3

Play is undervalued

It’s easy to see the positive impact of play when it comes to educating infant minds. So, why do we leave play behind when we get older?

If play helps children to leveraging their imagination and develop their innate creativity, then surely the same can be said for adults.

LEARN MORE: Listen to Sir Ken Robinson talk to us about the vital nature of unlocking children’s amazing creativity and how that influences their careers

It certainly rings true for my own experiences and those of the people I’ve worked with. Play isn’t just about amusement.

When people (adults or children) are involved in creative and stimulating activities, connections and relationships are strengthened too!

If you approach play with a clear appreciation of its worth, just imagine the power it will have to enable your clients to harness their strengths and knowledge so they can have an impact on the strategic challenges facing their organization.

That’s where play is often undervalued.

With all that in mind, here are 3 ways to add simple play to your learning design without the need to use board games and complex tools.

(You can always add those to the mix when you are ready for more!) Let’s keep it easy for now 👍

3 Ways to add play to your learning design

1 Use activities and exercises
2 Stop telling people the answers
3 Use role-plays

Use Play in Training - Copyright Mark Garrett Hayes CoachMedia Ltd
Put some play into your training – Copyright Mark Garrett Hayes

1 Use activities and exercises

By including some kind of training exercise and learning activity, you are automatically adding an element of play.

The secret is to introduce it, clarify it and debrief it. What does that mean?It means that there are three parts to this.

Firstly of all, you have to set up your environment so that people feel inspired and cognitively ready to play.

Next, you allow your delegates to play within defined parameters. Lastly you help them pull together what they’ve learned and help them to identify where they can use it.

“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than you can from a lifetime of conversation…”

Plato – Founder of The Academy in Ancient Greece

If you already have tried-and-tested activities in mind, ask yourself whether they fit the bill.

In other words, ask yourself whether each activity serves a clear learning purpose. It not, you might want to find something better.

Why use activities?

  • They create a change of pace with different durations, focus and energy
  • They allow people to interact and to engage with topics and challenges
  • They can be great fun and highly interactive if you pick the right ones

As a trainer / facilitator, it's important that you create conditions which enable your clients to feel that it's ok to let go TWEET THIS

The key thing to remember is that you must mix it up. People have low thresholds of boredom these days.

So you must provide variety in the form of different kinds of activities rather than just repeating the same ones.

Bonus tip: One of my absolute favorite activities to use with teams is Moving Motivators produced by Management 3.0.

You can access it here (or if you are a Miro user, you can grab a ready-made version of it here:

2 Stop telling people the answers

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever presented some kind of concept or model to your training delegates.

Did you by any chance show them the model in full and then spend the next 10-15 minutes explaining it from top to bottom?

I suspect we’ve all done plenty of that. Sometimes that trainer-led approach has its place. But at other times, there’s real opportunity to take yourself out of the equation and replace trainer-led-discovery with discovery-through-play instead.

Here are some ideas:

  • Show the model outline and get your participants to fill in the blanks
  • Do a word search where people have to pick out words related to the model
  • Turn the model into some kind of jigsaw so participants have to re-order elements

Why do this? 

  • It gives participants a chance to share what they already know or what their gut tells them
  • It allows people to make sense of it for themselves and to consider it in more depth.
  • It opens up a discussion about what the model includes and where things might fit*

    *It might even unearth some useful tweaks! (I’ve certainly seen models expanded when using this approach)

I worked with one consultant who wanted to introduce coaching to his clients in a more playful way rather than just presenting ideas and asking questions.

So we put our heads together and created an activity to invite people to explore coaching themselves.

Referring to the 7 Questions outlined in The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier, we offered them a list of the seven coaching questions and invited them to put them in the order that they thought they should be used.

Deconstruct ideas or concepts in training then help others to learn them by rebuilding them.. TWEET THIS

By asking delegates to re-order the coaching questions in the order that made sense to them, it gave them an opportunity to prove what they had learned, to engage in further discussion and to develop curiosity.

These learning points might never occur if we give all the answers.

The ideas is to deconstruct what you’ve got so that others can rebuild it in your training class! Maybe a model you regularly use has already come to mind.

Great. So deconstruct it! Just play with the idea yourself (pun intended) and see which ideas you can come up with!

3. Use Role Plays

I know what you are thinking! Urrggghhh! Role Plays! I know I’m not the only one who shudders at the thought (both as a participant and as a facilitator!)

But what if we took away the ‘role’ and just called it ‘play’?

It suddenly feels a lot more accessible doesn’t it? It’s less serious sounding, but still with a clear purpose.

By calling it play, it sound like you are offering your delegates the chance to try some learning in a place of safety so they can try out what they have learned in conjunction with you.

It doesn’t need to be the traditional role-play approach here either; the one where you pair up and take turns to try a difficult conversation in real life.

You could turn it into a game. Imagine having two teams – team A plays the manager and team B plays the employee.

Each team takes turns to say the next line in the conversation. Instead of it all being on one person’s shoulders, they each say a line in turn.

That now feels more like play, doesn’t it?

Rather than being reduced to a pod or break-out session where only 2 or 3 are learning now everyone is listening and learning from what everyone else says. 

Suddenly role-play is simply play and people can enjoy it.

So, in summary, why use (role) plays?

  • Participants own the learning – they take part and share the experience
  • It fires up the brain to put learning into practice and deepen understanding
  • It allows people to experiment and explore options in a safe space

One last notion to refer to is that of psychological safety. As a trainer / facilitator, it’s important that you create conditions which enable your clients to feel that it’s ok to let go.

With you, they can forget the normal constraints of work and just play a little.

In the same way that employers seek to create conditions for people to feel enabled to innovate and contribute to their job, it’s vital that you create conditions for participants to contribute to your workshops and programs too. Does that make sense?

The truth is that some adults are reluctant to admit that play feels alien to them.

They may be afraid to take risks in case they appear to fail or look silly on front of their peers or/and or leaders. So it’s your role to make make them feel at ease so join in the fun too!


As trainers and facilitators, we are privileged because we get to ‘play’ with our clients. We get to help them make breakthroughs and discover ‘aha!’ moments.

On the one hand, we allow our clients to free themselves from the constraints of ‘adult’ thinking and leverage their natural child-like disposition towards creativity and invention.

On the other hand, we create playful conditions for people to find new ways to solve pressing problems. Invention happens when training-creativity meets business-necessity.

Play need not be complex to design or deliver. In fact, you probably have more opportunities for highly rewarding play in your programs than you perhaps even realise!

So what ideas do you have to help other training practitioners?

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